Brunch

Safe and Secure?

  • How Level One hotels are faring with the new regulations 

The impact the pandemic has had on Sri Lanka’s tourism industry, which is the bread and butter of approximately three million Sri Lankans employed in the sector, both directly and indirectly has been devastating. With a lockdown being imposed recently, we are starting to see a decrease in the daily Covid-19 numbers, and with that one can see signs of the tourism industry starting to pick back up again. According to the new regulations, hotels are now allowed to operate. 

In the Level One accommodation, tourists are permitted to stay within the premises and move around only to isolated areas exclusively for them. Tourists staying longer than 14 days are allowed to stay in Level Two accommodation, which will be KPMG-certified “Safe and Secure” accommodation and will be permitted to visit selected tourist sites accompanied by a registered tourist guide. 

Brunch spoke to a few individuals involved in the tourism sector and a number of Level One hotels to learn more about the impact of Covid-19 on the industry and how they are faring with the recent regulations put in place. 

The functionality of Level One hotels 

Sri Lanka Tourism Advisory Committee Head and Jetwing Symphony Ltd. Chairman Hiran Cooray explained to us that Jetwing has hotels that are divided into Level One hotels, quarantine hotels and quarantine centres. He informed us that the rates for quarantine hotels and Covid-19 centres are fixed by the State so they cannot offer promotions or price reductions, but for the Level One hotels, they are able to offer special promotions where they see fit. 

He also commented that they are following the guidelines given, and they haven’t had any problems, but he did add that of course, every hotel would like to see these guidelines relaxed, observing that the Government seems to be taking steps in order to safely be able to relax it. 

We asked him if he had any suggestions on how to improve the already existing guidelines in order to obtain more tourists into the country. “The main factor that was keeping tourists away was the mandatory quarantine, which has now been lifted for those who have obtained both doses of the Covid-19 vaccine. The next main concern is to get Sri Lanka off the ‘red list’, since most countries have placed Sri Lanka on the red list, which means it’s not recognised as a safe country to travel to due to a massive outbreak of Covid-19,” he noted. 

As mentioned earlier, numbers of Covid-19 patients per day seem to be dwindling so there is hope for the country. “The moment we are out of the red list, we will begin to see people coming in; it won’t be much, but the numbers will be good enough,” he added, opining that the authorities must lobby the Governments of other countries to remove us from that red list and name us as safe. 

He also noted that as everyone is aware and supportive of the tourism industry, the Government realised that tourism is an essential cog in the wheel, therefore they will begin to focus on reviving tourism. He also added that it is important that tourism attractions are open and available for tourists as that is the only way to revive the industry. 

Impact on industry and economy 

According to SLTDA Chairperson Kimarli Fernando, the industry has faced a double whammy from the Easter Sunday attacks in 2019, and the pandemic that started in early 2020, being directly and heavily impacted by both events. 

She explained that the tourism industry, unlike other industries, provides foreign exchange that has a positive impact on the ret of the economy, from the biggest corporates to small and medium enterprises (SMEs), and the impact on the industry has therefore been felt badly by those who have directly invested in the industry and the many providers of products and services, including Government agencies depending on tourism. 

The implementation of the concept called the “travel biological bubble” implemented in Level One hotels, which attracted both appreciation and opposition from various parties, is one of the measures the SLTDA implemented in a bid to lessen the impact experienced by the tourism industry, according to Fernando. 

She further added that despite the huge support given to the industry, we are well aware of the devastating impact caused by the Easter Sunday bombings and the subsequent pandemic. To support Sri Lankan citizens and our industry, they created a “travel bio bubble” concept, and the idea was to open up the industry in a responsible manner, which enables international travellers to visit and travel the island while remaining in a bubble. This is essentially what a Level One hotel provides. 

Adding that even though the travel bio-bubble concept was introduced by the country’s tourism authorities, all other health guidelines that the tourists were required to adhere to were set by the Health Ministry: “Health guidelines, however, have to be distinguished from the travel bio-bubble concept. Various aspects of the health guidelines, such as PCR tests, the length of the quarantine period, and requirements pertaining to vaccination were decided by the Health Ministry, and not by the SLTDA. The SLTDA, however, took decisions regarding travel-related aspects.” 

Sri Lanka recognised for innovative thinking 

Speaking to Kings Pavilion Hotel, Kandy Marketing Manager Anjelo Jibson, he stated that since Kings Pavillion is in a bio bubble, it is very easy for them to maintain safety. He explained that this concept of a bio bubble was initially done by Singapore, adding that Sri Lanka has been recognised for its flawless implementation of this bubble and has maintained the safety of tourists and guests alike. 

Sharing this sentiment, Kirmali Fernando expressed: “The travel bio-bubble concept in fact enabled Sri Lanka to be recognised by the world travel and tourism sector, and Sri Lanka received the ‘Safe Travel Stamp’ as well.” In fact, she added that Sri Lanka was the first in this part of the world to receive it, and international media too recognised the use of this unique concept. 

We asked Jibson if King’s Pavilion has any ongoing promotions to further promote tourism to which he replied that no, they don’t see the need to as their main market is foreigners. “We do offer different rates, depending on the tourist’s budget and rates, but we do not have any fixed promotions nor do we have any sales on our website. We operate solely on a fixed budget and are flexible when offering rates.” 

Jibson also opined that only tourists should be allowed to visit attractions such as wildlife parks for the next four to five months, so we can go back to making an income based on our once thriving tourism sector. “Once you mix locals and foreigners, the chance of someone contracting Covid-19 is high, so the only way to prevent that is to keep them separate, which is what we do at our hotel and where the concept of a bio bubble comes in.” He added that tourists will be okay to pay more money if their safety is further guaranteed and one way we can ensure that is by closing these attractions to the locals for a few months and offering it to foreigners. 

Brunch also spoke to ONYX Sri Lanka Cluster General Manager Puneet Dutta who works with Amari Hotel in Galle. He expressed that during these challenging times, they have learned how to be innovative: “We keep track of all the changes in guidelines, the markets coming to the country, and customise packages accordingly.” Recently they launched their new package for Sri Lankans returning home for repatriation. Amari has options available for both vaccinated and non-vaccinated guests and include transport, PCR tests, insurance, meals etc. Dutta explained that they are currently gearing up to attract the Russian travellers as SriLankan Airlines start to fly weekly to Moscow. He is hopeful that more flights will resume shortly. 

Talking about the concept of a bio bubble implemented in Level One hotels, he commented: “The tourism ministry and SLTDA should be applauded for the great effort they have been putting in challenging times. They have shown flexibility and kept changing guidelines as per the condition in the country and the new regulations are a great step for tourists, however, we did see cancellations of close to 400 room nights within two days.” 

We asked Dutta if they faced any challenges due to the regulations. He replied: “Opening up key markets, lack of entertainment options to the guests in the bio bubble, vaccinations for team members to mention a few. We are frontline workers so team members had to stay in the hotel for extended periods of time.” On this topic, we questioned if there was anything he’d like changed or amended about the regulations, he explained that it would be good if they can be reviewed as the vaccination drive continues. He also suggested that the Government allow Level One hotels to use the ballroom for local guests, especially hotels where the banquet facilities can operate separately, with separate entrances. 

Moving forward 

The bio-bubble concept implemented in Level One hotels was welcomed as a positive move by foremost tourism industry professionals, such as The Hotels Association of Sri Lanka (THASL) President Sanath Ukwatte, who observed that it is a very unique, safe, and secure way of promoting tourism. 

Ukwatte is of the opinion that even though the Government has already taken a number of measures to support the Covid-19-hit tourism industry, there are more measures that should be taken. Continued Government support, according to him, is of great importance. 

He noted: “The Government has taken proactive measures to revive the industry. It has offered a temporary lifeline for the industry by freezing our debt servicing, introducing moratoriums, and giving us soft loans to meet our recurring costs during airport closures, initially. Now, with the current third wave, our businesses have come to a standstill, mainly because the locals are also unable to travel these days.” 

Commenting on the success of this project, he added that it was developed to open Sri Lanka’s doors to the world under what is known as the “new normal”. “We were one of the countries that pioneered this system, and today, a number of other countries are also following the same method. After almost six months, Sri Lanka has had less than 1% of the total Covid-19 positive cases due to this, and those cases too have been successfully managed through measures such as quarantine. Also, we have no evidence whatsoever to suggest that the tourism industry has caused a spread of the virus in the country.” 

He suggested that the Government should look at long term plans for conducting day-to-day business amidst the pandemic. “The virus is very unlikely to disappear for years to come, and we have to accept it, and we have to therefore look for ways as to how we can continue with our lives and businesses, and learn to live with it.” A few countries have opened up for tourism and are managing the outbreak, while most other countries remain closed. Ukwatte strongly believes that Sri Lanka will be able to successfully welcome tourists under the bubble concept to revive the industry, while adhering to all safety measures very strictly and giving utmost priority to the safety of the community. 

From our conversations with heads of hotels, we understood that while the bio bubble is a viable concept, they all have changes that they would like to see implemented. Commenting on measures that are planned for the foreseeable future of the tourism industry, Kirmali Fernando noted: “Going forward, global promotion is going to be launched, and it is happening in a context where Sri Lanka has not had an integrated global promotion campaign for around 10 years. It is very important for a country to focus on branding in order to position our brand, and we have not done that for many years.”